A Shot of Empathy

I doubt managers will get much training on all the scenarios.

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By Jonathan Dahl

Many years ago, a good friend of mine came down with what seemed like a terrible flu. He complained on the phone about a fever and, in between some nasty coughs, said he had a ton of body aches. At one point, I asked him why he didn’t get a flu shot and he said he just had. This, he surmised, was his reaction to it. And just like that, I decided to never get a flu shot again. I didn’t investigate whether what he said was possible. I didn’t ask my doctor. I just stopped and haven’t had one ever since.

This kind of irrational thinking is going to play out among millions as the world now turns to the all-important stage of rolling out a vaccine against COVID-19. It baffles some as to why, but “the V word” tends to freak out a portion of the population. It did during the last pandemic, in 1918, and it has at various points since. Already, early surveys found that four in 10 people say they won’t take the new vaccine. It probably doesn’t help that, to some, the approval process and early testing seem rushed, even though, of course, this is one miracle of medicine that needs as much hurrying as possible in a prudent manner.

But from one miracle now creates the need for another—the miracle of navigating the human condition. As we all know (and as we cover in “The Vaccine Paradox,” on page 14) companies will want people who return to the office to be vaccinated for their sake and that of their fellow workers. This will naturally face the same legal and logistical issues that other vaccines have posed. But it will also pose a unique challenge for leaders and frontline managers. Whatever their own feelings about the shots, these folks will have to do some careful hand-holding and understand those who are uncomfortable with the shots not for any religious or health reasons—but just because. Sure, managers could cite company policy, if one is created, but in my mind a dose of empathy is called for here.

It’s true that instead of requiring vaccinations, some firms could opt to strongly recommend it and ask everyone to still wear masks and stay socially distanced. But that means a different kind of empathy for employees who would be upset over that. Either way, I doubt managers will get much training on all the scenarios, and all the responses to them. It will be yet one more COVID hurdle to navigate. Hopefully the last.